The Koren Ethiopian Haggada

Journey to Freedom

Edited by Rabbi Menachem Waldman

Koren Publishers, 2011, 229pages

ISBN 978-965-301-292-9


This is an interesting book that introduces readers to the history of Ethiopian Jews,[1] the brutal treatment they endured for centuries, their culture, and the remarkable fact that they maintained the Jewish religion as mandated by the Torah before it was changed by the Pharisees and later rabbis by incorporating into Judaism what is called “Oral Torah.”

This book has 45 essays containing prayers, traditions, and history of Ethiopian Jewry, including stories of the many attempts by Ethiopian Jews to return to Israel, as well as many photographs and paintings. It also has the entire text of the Passover night practice contained in the Haggada, a book read on Passover Eve during a special meal called Seder, meaning “arrangement” or “order,” composed during the middle ages that celebrates the exodus from Egyptian slavery. Since the book was composed long after Ethiopian Jews left Israel, as we will soon discuss, Ethiopian culture does not have the Haggada or any other rabbinic literature.

Judaism’s greatest mystery, a fact that few Jews realize, is that Judaism today is not Torah Judaism but rabbinical Judaism. Virtually all of Torah laws were modified in some ways by Pharisees and later by rabbis, and many were even abolished. Orthodox Jews can observe all the Orthodox Jewish practices while recognizing that Pharisees and rabbis had to change many biblical laws and practices because of changed circumstances, especially the cessation of sacrifices when the temple was destroyed in 70 CE.[2] These changes are called Torah shebalpe, Oral Torah. While they are innovations, they are based on the text or spirit of Torah laws.[3]

Even Christianity developed from rabbinic Judaism (or more precisely Pharisaic Judaism[4] since the first rabbis, who succeeded the Pharisees, were in 70 CE), and not Torah Judaism, since Christianity began long after the Pharisees made many changes in how the Torah was interpreted. The only Torah-true Jews today, at least those who observe their practices, are Karaites who originated around the seventh to eight century CE and rejected rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, and Ethiopian Jews who left Israel  before the rise of Pharisees. They left during the reign of King Solomon, or when the first temple was destroyed in 586 BCE and Judeans were exiled from their land, or during an exile after Alexander the Great conquered the area, including Judea and Egypt, around 323 BCE,[5] depending on which tradition one accepts.

Some of the many “Torah” practices of the Ethiopians that were changed by Pharisees and rabbis are: Nisan is the beginning of the year, not Tishrei; a lamb or goat is sacrificed on 14 Nisan, although sacrifices were discontinued in rabbinic Judaism after 70 CE; and rule by priests, who were replaced by rabbis in rabbinic Judaism. Ethiopians did not have phylacteries, mezuzot affixed to doorposts, since these were rabbinic enactments. Most of the observant Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel have accepted the practices of rabbinic Judaism.

Yet, despite not having rabbinic Judaism, Ethiopian Jews retained the primary principles of Judaism, the belief in the God of Israel, the oneness of God, The requirement to observe the Torah, and acceptance of the teachings of the prophets. They also believed in divine reward and punishment, the world to come, heaven and hell, the ingathering of the exiles, including them, and the coming of the messiah.

[1] The local population called these Jews “Falashas” – trespassers who have no land – as well as other derogatory names.

[2] For example, despite the Torah stating that all debts are nullified during the Shemitah year, which occurs every seventh year (the next Shemitah will begin in September 2013), Hillel invented “prozbul,” a method whereby debts could remain in force beyond the Shemitah year.

[3] Often, as the Talmud states, hanging by a thread.

[4] Many scholars date the onset of the Pharisees around the third or second century BCE.

[5] One Ethiopian tradition remembers that after Alexander conquered Egypt and left the area, Egyptians waged war against the Jews since they suspected the Jews had collaborated with the Greeks, the Jews were defeated, and many Jews were exiled, including those who traveled to Ethiopia.